It was Easter Sunday, and Kes Smith was in the radio room when she received the call: poachers had been spotted in a remote corner of Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the world's last remaining northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni).
Smith and her husband Frasier, who have worked as conservationists in the park for over 20 years, immediately leapt into a small airplane and took off.
But they were too late. Flying along a river, they soon discovered two freshly killed rhinos and 12 dead elephants. No meat had been taken, only the rhino horns and elephant tusks.
Farther north, the South African couple spotted a caravan of 25 heavily-laden pack donkeys moving toward neighboring Sudan. It was the first time they had witnessed such a supply train of poached ivory and rhino horns.
The Smiths knew it was an ominous sign. Sudanese poachers have already eliminated most of the wildlife in Central African Republic and Chad, using donkeys and horses to transport the loot back to Sudan. Rhino horns, which are treasured for medicinal purposes in some parts of the world, can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market.
Now, the Smiths and other conservationists worry that a similarly systematic poaching campaign could be underway in Garamba. Six rhino carcasses have been found in the last two months, and more rhinos could have been slaughtered.
Before the recent killings, the northern white rhino population was estimated to be only 30, despite four baby rhinos having been born in the last year. Unless urgent action is taken to combat the upsurge in poaching, conservationists say, the last wild population of northern white rhinos could be wiped out in six months.
"If this situation continues, it will be a disaster for the park," Paulin Tshikaya, the head warden of Garamba National Park, said in a telephone interview from Kinshasa, Congo. "At the moment we cannot protect the park from this poaching."
Established in 1938, Garamba is one of the oldest national parks in Africa. Located in the northeastern corner of Congo, it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The park is mainly undulating grassland. It is home to 6,000 elephants and less than 100 Congo giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis congoensis), also the last remaining in the world. But its real calling card is the endangered northern white rhino, which has been exterminated in all of its former habitats in central Africa.
"From a conservation standpoint, it is one of the most important places in Africa," said Richard Ruggiero, the Africa Program Officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's a jewel about to be plucked out of the crown."
Poaching is hardly a new problem in Garamba National Park. Only 15 rhinos remained in 1984, when the Smiths started their Garamba Project, which is currently supported by the International Rhino Foundation in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. That was down from as many as 500 in 1976. A vigilant anti-poaching campaign led to the doubling of the population by 1995. But more recently, the war that has crippled Sudan for much of the last 40 years has taken an increasing toll on the park's wildlife.
A few years ago, rebels from the Sudanese People Liberation Army (SPLA) moved into the park and began poaching commercially for bushmeat. Most of the larger wildlife has been eliminated in the northern two thirds of the park.
Since June, 2003, there has been a massive upsurge in poaching in the southern section of the park, and a switch from primarily meat poaching to ivory and rhino horn.
In flights over the park, Fraser and Kes Smith have found huge numbers of elephants killed for their tusks, at times with wounded and bewildered babies standing next to their slaughtered mothers. They say more than 1,000 elephants have been killed in the last year.
Some observers believe the confusion surrounding current peace talks in Sudan may be fueling the poaching trade.
"Things are getting far worse, possibly [because] everyone is trying to grab as much as they can before peace falls," said Kes Smith in an e-mail interview.
In April, park guards for the first time encountered northern Sudanese militia fighters—perhaps allied with the Sudanese government in Khartoum—who are using their trains and horses to transport ivory and rhino horn back to Sudan.
These Sudanese horsemen are "professional destroyers of nature," said Ruggiero. "Since they have poached out just about every other area, they are now focusing on of the last vestiges of wildlife and that is Garamba."
Exactly how many northern white rhinos have been killed is impossible to ascertain, but conservationists warn there may be as few as 20 left.
There are currently 150 park guards in Garamba, which is run by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature and funded by a consortium of international donor organizations.
In the absence of any Congolese military presence, says Warden Tshikaya, the Sudanese factions are firmly entrenched in the park. His park guards lack the resources to combat the poachers.
Conservationists are urging international governments to confront both the Sudanese government and the rebels about the rampant poaching. While there is no evidence of direct involvement by the Sudanese government, experts believe there are individuals in the regime who may be buying rhino horns.
In the long run, conservationists say, a political solution is needed. In the short run, however, logistical and military support is needed to prevent an environmental disaster.
"We could very well see the extinction of the nothern white rhino in the next six months," said Mike Fay, a conservation fellow at the National Geographic Society. "This isn't an extremist alarm call. This is what's happening in Garamba."